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Going Greek: Contemplating Richmond’s Greek Festival From an LGBTQ Perspective

Ancient Greece once represented a "gay utopia" to LGBTQ scholars. Can we find any trace of their imagined paradise at Richmond's Greek Festival today?

GayRVA Staff | June 6, 2018

I’m waiting in line for dessert. My ten-year-old sister, Millie, wants chocolate cake for lunch. There’s a smiling elderly woman standing behind the counter who serves a piece of cake while giving us the Greek name for it with a beautiful, exotic pronunciation. She tells a younger helper in Greek that they will need another tray of cake. Millie is floored: “It’s so cool that everyone knows each other here and they all speak the same language!” she says with chocolate on the curves of her mouth.

It really is cool. Going to the Greek Festival has been an annual tradition for my family since I was young, and I wasn’t about to miss it this year. Not only is there incredible food, wine and music, but it’s for a good cause: Richmond’s Greek Festival has been giving back to the community since its inception in 1976, with proceeds from the inaugural two-day festival going to the Richmond Children’s Hospital.

Since that first year, it has grown to be a long weekend full of activity, and the festival has donated tens of thousands of dollars to charities around Richmond. This year’s beneficiaries were ReEstablish Richmond, The Healing Place, Relationship Foundation, Peter Paul Development Center, and Jacob’s Chance. There’s no denying that these folks give back in a big way every year.

Crowds came out in droves all four days of the festival, braving the stormy weekend weather to stand in line for some of the most delicious food you can find in Richmond. I went with my girlfriend and Millie when the sun was out on Sunday, and I ate enough for a small family: I went through the à la carte line first, getting a tray with a smorgasbord of chicken souvlaki, spanakopita, dolmades, and galatoboureko. I then went back for a lamb gyro. If it was physically possible to eat more, I would have; the food was that good. We then stood by the stage and watched the dances by church members of all ages wearing folk costumes from across Greece.

Via Richmond Greek Festival/Facebook

My question with these kinds of events is always this: is this real Greek culture, or is this just a snapshot of the Greek culture that this organization wants us to see?

An advertisement for the Greek Festival uses the busts of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but there is little in common between the philosophical ideals of Ancient Greece and the orthodoxy of the modern church and state. We see this most explicitly in the continued renunciation of LGBTQ rights in modern Greece and the Greek Orthodox Church.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese continues to list homosexuality along with fornication, adultery, abortion and abusive sexual behavior as “immoral and inappropriate forms of behavior in and of themselves, and also because they attack the institution of marriage and the family.” Same-sex marriage and child adoption are still illegal in Greece, and while civil unions were made legal in 2015 and a law allowing same-sex couples to foster children was passed last month, the country still drastically lags behind the rest of the Western world when it comes to LGBTQ issues.

Oscar Wilde, 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Many 19th century intellectuals, including history’s most famous LGBTQ martyr, Oscar Wilde, looked at Ancient Greece as a seeming “gay utopia.” In order to see if this theory carried any real weight, I reached out to VCU history professor Dr. Peter Stone, an expert in ancient Greek history and archaeology.

“The fascinating thing about Greek sexuality is how varied its portrayal is in different ancient sources,” he said. He points to Plato’s Symposium as one example, which would make the modern reader “think that it was pretty normal for Athenians, especially Athenian men, to have what we think of as both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.”

But then there is Aristophanes’ famous anti-war play, Lysistrata, from which one would figure that “only heterosexual relationships were normal because the central joke of the play is that the women will go on a sex strike until the men stop fighting – if the men can satisfy themselves/each other the whole plot falls apart.”

He explains that the difference in audience may well be a factor in the difference depictions of sexuality: “Plato was writing for a small subset of highly educated men, while Aristophanes’ plays were performed before the whole (male) citizen body. Maybe there were different sexual norms among the broader populace than the educated elite.”

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Maybe it’s not as black and white as Wilde and the LGBTQ community of his time wished to think, but it’s worth pointing out the openness of the powerful elite in Plato’s day to homosexuality. It’s a stark contrast to the powerful elite of modern Greece: in 2013 a Greek bishop threatened to excommunicate any member of parliament who endorsed civil unions for gay couples. The Guardian’s Greek correspondent, Helena Smith, says that Greece is still one of Europe’s “most socially conservative countries, where sex education is still not taught in schools — and where no majority personality or politician has ever been bold enough to come out.”

There’s a heaping dose of cosmic irony in the cases of minority groups persecuting other minority groups in America. Have we forgotten that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”? Maybe Greek-Americans have forgotten that, too. It wasn’t that long ago that “Greeks need not apply” signs hung in storefronts across this country, and Greek immigrants were frequent targets of the Ku Klux Klan.

Maybe a Greek Festival isn’t the time and place for reconciling ancient Greece’s LGBTQ-friendly history and the homophobia that permeates through its modern church and state. Perhaps it’s a bit of a buzz-kill after a few cups of red wine and a belly full of gyro. But if we don’t at least consider these realities at times like these, there are important dimensions of the issue we’re ignoring.